Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922), the Scottish-born American scientist best known as the inventor of the telephone, worked at a school for the deaf while attempting to invent a machine that would transmit sound by electricity. Bell was granted the first official patent for his telephone in March 1876, though he would later face years of legal challenges to his claim that he was its sole inventor, resulting in one of history’s longest patent battles. Bell continued his scientific work for the rest of his life, and used his success and wealth to establish various research centers nationwde.
Bell owes his immortality to his having been the first to design and patent a practical device for transmitting the human voice by means of an electric current. But Bell always described himself simply as a “teacher of the deaf,” and his contributions in that field were of the first order.
Bell, who was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, was educated there and at the University of London. He also studied under his grandfather, Alexander Bell, a noted speech teacher. He taught elocution, assisted his father, also a speech teacher and noted phonetician, and taught at a school for the deaf in England, using his father’s methods. In 1870, Bell immigrated with his parents to Canada.
Two years later he established a school for the deaf in Boston, Massachusetts, and the following year became a professor in speech and vocal physiology at Boston University. While teaching he experimented with a means of transmitting several telegraph messages simultaneously over a single wire and also with various devices to help the deaf learn to speak, including a means of graphically recording sound waves.
In 1874 the essential idea of the telephone formed in his mind. As he later explained it, “If I could make a current of electricity vary in intensity precisely as the air varies in density during the production of sound, I should be able to transmit speech telegraphically.” Two years later he applied for a patent, which was granted on March 7, 1876. On March 10, the first coherent complete sentence—the famous “Mr. Watson, come here; I want you”—was transmitted in his laboratory.
In later years Bell experimented with a means to detect metal in wounds and with a vacuum-jacket respirator that led to the development of the iron lung. He helped bring Thomas A. Edison’s phonograph to commercial practicality and experimented with hydrofoil boats and with airplanes as early as the 1890s.
With the wealth derived from the telephone, Bell was able to assist the careers of other scientists. He also founded and helped finance the journal Science, today the premier American scientific journal, and the National Geographic Society.
While constantly engaged in scientific experiments, Bell crusaded tirelessly on behalf of the deaf, encouraging their integration into society with the help of lip-reading and other techniques. In 1890 he founded the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf.
He died in 1922 at his summer home on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. People throughout North America were urged to refrain from making phone calls during his burial so that telephones would remain silent as a tribute.
Robert V. Bruce, Bell: Alexander Graham Bell and the Conquest of Solitude (1973).